Educational? Looks violent….SPOILER, it’s both.
Dragon Age 2 is a role-playing videogame, located in a medieval fantasy-type setting. In it, players lead a character through a large narrative that spans the range of ten years. During this time, players grow their character into the eventual champion of the realm. Before all this, players are given the choice of a playing as either a warrior, a rogue, or a mage as their main character.
This is the beginning of narrative agency.
Though the creative decision may be greatly limited compared to several other popular RPGs, it is done for reasons related to narrative. After the character creation, a cutscene unfolds which reveals the story as a framed narrative by a dwarf companion who will join the player’s character’s team later during the game. The story the dwarf tells is completely dependant upon the player’s choices throughout the game. Whether he tells it in a positive or negative light is also dependant upon the main character’s relationship to the dwarf in the game.
Not only will the choices players make determine the personality of the main character, the narrative at large, the relationships between the main character and his teammates, but also they will change how the main character interacts with society.
Early in the game, one can already notice the intricate web preparing to be spun. More than anything the procedural rhetoric being presented to the player is this: choose wisely. This is why players are spending fifteen extra dollars on strategy guides to games already costing sixty dollars and upward. With Dragon Age 2 there is rarely a “best choice” in whatever you do. And yet, there are always more choices to be made that are unrelated to the central narrative quest. It is what makes the roleplaying genre the prime subject for a study in true agency.
Soooo cute… but that’s about it.
This concept of true agency is not to be confused with mere customization. Imagine a game of Pac-Man in which there is something other to accomplish than eating all the yellow pellets. Such a game would not longer be Pac-man. It would simply be Pac-Man, with distractions. Imagine the game of PONG where there was more to do than bounce the white pixel past one’s opponent. It could only be called PONG: multi-tasking. Extra achievements are merely extraneous in games that do not allow for trueplayer agency.
You could make Pac-Man pink, the white pixel purple, or perform any other countless graphical manipulation. This however, is simply a fashion show, not character control, and certainly not true agency.
Now, there are also games that are core role-playing genre, like Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, or Mass Effect 1,2&3, where complex choices of morality driving the narrative are simplified into black and white categories. There may be consequences as a result of choosing one over the other, a different ending based on adhering to good rather than bad, but the system is a vast oversimplification of human decision that harms the transfer of true application from game to day-to-day life.
Dragon Age 2 suffers few of the same downfalls these modern role-playing video games do. The “side missions” in Dragon Age 2 are sometimes irrelevant to the main quest, sometimes merely helpful, but most often, they make certain action choices within the main quest available that would have otherwise been inaccessible if not completed before hand.
This is important as one considers the full reality of one’s life. Rarely, are things completely distinct from another; skills often intertwine, and in the world of globalization, social connections are key to success.
In regards to its system of morality and corresponding action options, Dragon Age 2 does not simplistically give players a good-neutral-bad three-choice wheel. While providing not only those options, it also lets players perform tactful, witty, charming, aggressive, direct, flirtatious, rejecting, and extorting actions; one can even defer the action to another character in one’s team as way of building their relationship.
Even making the choice to be male or female makes a difference in dialogue
Though unlimited options are not possible as they would be in real life situations, Dragon Age 2 presents a newer system of character response that more closely mirrors day-to-day decision-making. The experience that Dragon Age 2 presents lends credence to its potent use of procedural rhetoric.
For further reading on the nature of choice and freewill in video games, I highly recommend this article on Bioshock Infinite after you’ve beaten the game: http://kevinjameswong.com/2013/04/08/bioshock-infinite-is-a-metacommentary-on-the-nature-of-video-game-storytelling/